Burlington Central threw a block party to start its celebration of an outright Big Northern Conference East Division boys basketball title Friday night at Richmond-Burton.
Six-foot-9 junior Duncan Ozburn and 6-5 seniors Moter Deng and Dan McCurdy made it clear there would be no easy strolls down the lane to the basket by combining for 6 first-quarter blocks. And when Central wasn't swatting shots it was significantly increasing the degree of scoring difficulty for defending BNC East champion R-B.
Sharing the ball offensively and one of the primary defensive responsibilities also played into the visiting Rockets' objective to make sure they didn't share the championship. As a result, they were posing for pictures at Lou Ramirez Gymnasium after a 60-42 victory extended their winning streak to seven games and capped a recovery from an 0-7 start to the season.
"I was just thinking if we lose we have to share the conference," Ozburn said of his fuel for 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting, 9 rebounds and 4 blocked shots.
"When we started off 0-7, it took a lot of hard work and a lot of practice," said senior Bryce Warner, who had 9 rebounds and 6 assists. "I don't know if anyone outside of our team thought we could get back to .500 and we did."
Burlington (13-13, 11-1) claimed its 19th conference title since 1960 and first since 2007-08 by beating R-B (12-16, 9-3) for the second time in two weeks. Deng also had 13 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocks and McCurdy had 6 points and 8 rebounds to help add to commanding rebounding advantages of 54-27 overall and 21-10 offensively.
And Burlington used Ryan Ritchie, James Raney, Jacob Schutta and Reed Hunnicutt to hold R-B senior Chris Vlasak to 5 points on 2-for-11 shooting. Vlasak had 19 points in their meeting two weeks ago and scored 22 on Tuesday against Marengo.
"Our defense," Deng said of the reason for the turnaround. "We're talking more and we're playing defense as a team. Our rotations are a lot faster and our chemistry is getting better."
Ozburn had 8 points and 3 blocks, Deng had 2 blocks and McCurdy had one as Central took a 30-6 lead 3:36 before halftime after consecutive 3-pointers by Raney. R-B was 0-for-10 behind the arc as it missed 24 of its first 26 shots.
"I felt like they got scared after the first quarter with all the blocks we had," Deng said.
"All year long we've had that length," said Central coach Brett Porto after R-B shot 25.9 percent from the field (15-for-58) and 3-for-18 on 3s. "Tonight we used our length better than we have all year defensively and offensively. Duncan probably had his best game of the season and maybe his career."
Ozburn had 12 of his points at halftime and also had an assist to Warner for a layup as Central shot 50 percent (14-for-28) and led 34-13 at the break.
"We were moving the ball very unselfishly offensively and we rebounded very well," Ozburn said. "We played a great game."
R-B never got closer than 14 points in the second half as junior Nick Pittser scored all 11 of his team-high points in the fourth quarter. Senior Brett Rau added 6 rebounds and senior Malik Harris played significant minutes off the bench for Central.
"I felt like we could always have a chance to compete in the conference with the way we set up our nonconference schedule," Porto said of early tests that included Elgin and Hampshire. "Sitting at 0-7, this turned into our No. 1 priority and No. 1 goal.
"It's a testament to the kids' ability to fight back through all of that adversity and reach their goal."
Now Central has bigger ones in mind as it hosts its own Class 3A regional as a No. 4 seed and faces No. 5 Genoa-Kingston in Monday's 5:30 p.m. quarterfinal. The Rockets hope to get a shot at avenging a pair of early-season losses by 5 and 11 points to top-seeded Hampshire in Tuesday's semifinals.
"Nothing is stopping us right now and teams we've played haven't seen how we've played lately," Deng said.
"I think we can play better," Warner said. "I think we're playing our best basketball but we still haven't reached our potential. Hopefully we'll meet that coming up in the playoffs."
Monday game time changed: The Rockets' Class 3A regional opener at home Monday, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. against Genoa-Kingston, will be played at 5:30 p.m. in order for Central fans to go to Hoffman Estates, where the Rockets' girls team plays Vernon Hills at 7:30 p.m. in a Class 3A supersectional.